Darian Stibbe and Jessica McGhie
If you ask a room full of people to rate how good they are at partnering, the chances are that most will rate themselves very highly. After all, it’s a natural human instinct, isn’t it? We do it all the time in our personal relationships, with our colleagues at work, in sports teams.
From The Partnering Initiative’s decade of experience working with business, the UN, NGOs and donors, when it comes to partnerships with those dissimilar to ourselves – such as across continents or across societal sectors – the picture changes completely. Our experiences suggest that perhaps only 20% of people are naturally brilliant at partnering, with an innate set of abilities to allow them to collaborate with those quite different to themselves. Then there are 20% of people who are terrible at it and simply will never ‘get it’. There then remains the majority – 60% – who can effectively build up their ability to partner through developing their professional skills and through learning through reflection from experience.
As further underscored by last week’s UN Global Compact Leaders Summit in New York, partnerships have never been higher up the business and development agenda, with both companies and the international development community placing a heavy burden on collaboration to deliver business and societal growth and sustainability.
However, working across sectors and implementing successful partnerships is not easy. It requires bringing together organisations with different interests, values, cultures, ways of working, timescales and even language. The process is usually time-consuming with unexpected changes and obstacles along the way and the partnerships themselves are often prone to gridlock and fragmentation – all of which adds significantly to their cost.
It is almost a truism to say that organisations don’t partner, it is individuals that partner. Of course the institutional engagement and sign-off is essential but in the end people are at the heart of partnerships – it is people that make partnerships work or not work.
So, what do practitioners on all sides need to partner effectively? In essence, there are four key elements: understanding of other sectors; technical knowledge of partnering; ‘people’ and relationship skills; and, underpinning it all, a mindset for partnering.
Let’s start with the mindset. Partnership requires giving up on your autonomy. It’s no longer you calling all the shots, and it’s no longer all about what you are going to get out of it. True partnerships are built on equity, transparency, joint decision-making and mutual accountability, with partners acting in the interest of the partnership as a whole, as well as the individual organisation’s own interest. Partnerships require a humility that you may not have all the answers, being open to new ideas, new approaches and an appreciation that with diversity comes greater understanding and the potential for real innovation.
Understanding of other sectors: To partner well with organisations from other sectors requires appreciating their differences: understanding how they work, how they think, their strengths as well as the capacity, organisational and legal constraints in which they operate. The ‘clash of cultures’ we often come across, for example between business and UN agencies, is absolutely real, and is something that needs to be explicitly acknowledged, ‘owned’ as a joint problem and worked through together rather than being allowed to become a blockage to progress.
Technical knowledge: A partnership will go through a range of stages during its lifecycle: scoping of a potential collaboration; engaging partners; developing a partnership agreement; mobilising resources and setting up the operational structure; implementing and managing the partnership; reviewing and revising; and finally transforming, scaling or closing down. All of these stages require technical skills and knowledge of good practice, including, for example, being able to assess when partnering is appropriate and when it isn’t; what to look out for in a good partner; how to structure partnering agreements; how to assess if a partnership is set up for success or, later down the line, is functioning effectively and delivering results.
Finally, the people and relationship skills. While often called the ‘soft’ skills, these are just as real, as challenging, and as essential as any of the ‘hard’ skills such as finance or project management. In the end, what will make a partnership work is the ability to build up the trust and manage the relationship between the partners – the essential ‘glue’ that ensures commitment and allows a partnership to function efficiently, address problems and get through difficult times. Particularly in the early stages of a partnership, being open and transparent, communicating with excellence, and always delivering on your commitments, however small, can help to build up trust. And techniques such as interest-based negotiation (an approach which explicitly sets out to find solutions that give value to all parties) can define the objectives of a partnership while simultaneously strengthening the relationship.
One of the concerns often expressed about partnership is just how long it takes to get them up and running and the effort required to keep them going – the ‘transaction costs’. An early investment in capacity development to ensure that all those involved have the mindset, the understanding of other sectors, and the technical and people skills necessary for effective partnering, will provide a significant payback by reducing those transaction costs, ensuring problems are foreseen and avoided, and making sure the partnership is set up to deliver as efficiently and effectively as possible.